Shine wrote on Twitter that “The entire Baby Boom population alive today had the #Measles as kids.” She added: “I had the #Measles #Mumps #ChickenPox as a child and so did every kid I knew — Sadly my kids had #MMR so they will never have the life long natural immunity I have. Come breathe on me!” Shine is correct that many baby boomers alive today had all of these diseases. Unfortunately, there are boomers who aren’t alive today precisely because they didn’t have access to the lifesaving science of vaccines.
Was life before vaccines really so carefree, and were these diseases really so inconsequential? It’s impossible to travel back in time, but one can step on a plane and, in under a day, be transported to places where vaccines are not nearly so universally available. Nine years ago, I did just this, spending the year in rural Cambodia teaching fifth grade gifted students. It was in Southeast Asia where I became a passionate defender of the importance of vaccines, because I witnessed the ravages of these diseases firsthand.
The first of these vaccine-preventable diseases I encountered was the mumps. At an orphanage I visited, I met several children spread out on rugs in one of the common areas hooked up to IVs filled with coconut water. At first, I had no idea what I was seeing, so thoroughly has mumps been eradicated in the United States: My guide had to explain what was making the orphans so ill.
While I had seen many cases of dengue fever and malaria in my time there, the mumps was frighteningly different. The necks of several of the children were swollen several times their normal size, and they looked like they were struggling to breathe. I’m unsure if that was because of the swelling around their airways, sitting in tropical temperatures with high fevers, or a combination of the two. They were immobile on the floor, ignored in the bustle of all of the other children present, lethargic and in visible discomfort. It was a painful sight to witness and, I can only imagine, unimaginably miserable to experience, even if the children survived.
Over the course of the year, I also saw children similarly afflicted with the measles, felled by a rash, pain and a raging fever in daytime temperatures of more than 100 degrees in the shade, always accompanied by suffocating humidity. I heard of children in nearby villages dying and of women miscarrying their unborn babies.
It has become a trend for Western parents to eschew vaccinations, to spend their time searching out doctors who will agree to treat children whose parents refuse vaccinations, and to find ways to obtain legal exemptions to send their children to school without the required immunization. I witnessed parents in Cambodia spending their time quite differently.
Often, nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit hospitals would offer Cambodian parents free vaccinations during clinic hours. It was always clear when these clinics were open, because lines of dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of mothers with their babies and young children would appear. Standing in the heat and direct sun, shaded only by their own scarves, families would line up for hours to obtain lifesaving shots for their children.
There were Cambodian children who, like Shine, survived measles, mumps and more. But their parents knew firsthand what kind of suffering accompanies these vaccine-preventable diseases. They also knew of families who weren’t so lucky and who buried children.
The movement to avoid vaccines is one of the most glaring examples of privilege in the Western world. The volunteer who took me to that orphanage where I saw my first case of the mumps reminded me that childhood shots were one of the invisible and forgotten luxuries granted to me by virtue of where I was born.
That luxury is no longer guaranteed to American children, thanks to an anti-vaccine movement peddling false fears about vaccine ingredients and their side effects. These fears don’t take hold in Cambodia and other less developed countries nearly as easily, because rumors of autism cannot trump the real-world experience of seeing children suffering and dying needlessly.
As parents in the West become more familiar with what exactly these diseases look like as outbreaks spread, the casual outlook on these quaint childhood diseases shared by individuals such as Shine will inevitably fade. This process has already begun. Measles outbreaks on the West Coast have prompted a rush to obtain the vaccines at doctors offices and urgent-care clinics. Seeing their children’s friends and classmates taken ill and sometimes hospitalized has had a way of impressing the importance of immunizations upon even vaccine-hesitant parents.
It shouldn’t be necessary to subject hundreds of children to preventable diseases to remind their parents in the West of what those in Cambodia have been forced to understand: Vaccines are a gift. We should treat them that way.